Its story, about cuddly and mismatched mammals forced to raise and return a lost human baby to its own "herd," renders it a cross between Three Men and a Baby and Monsters Inc. But it's bereft of the charisma of the former and the energy of the latter; stuck in a frozen wasteland, it possesses all the vigor of a Popsicle. And its look -- provided by the Blue Sky Studios team, including director Chris Wedge, responsible for the sweet and poignant, Oscar-winning animated short Bunny in 1998 -- has lost its ability to delight and dazzle. It's one more computer-generated bit of animation in which everything is intended to look real and surreal all at once; the humans, especially, look silly and slight, as though they're sketches awaiting final animation.
Yet for all that, Ice Age is not entirely unlikable -- not because it's humorous or particularly clever (its gags, such as they are, often fail to elicit more than a weary chuckle) but because it's ultimately bittersweet. It's less a comedy than an accidental domestic drama that happens to be dolled up in kiddie-merch drag. It is, in many ways, the perfect family movie: A resilient child nearly dies in the same river that claims his mother only to find his way home again, and an embittered father (and father figure), who's lost his own wife and child, has his faith (and heart) restored. The comic moments only distract from and deflect the underlying sentiment; it's as though the filmmakers, whose earlier effort proved you can indeed tell a heartbreaking tale using computer-generated furballs and insects, felt they couldn't play it straight, so they had to bend their tale till it broke in half.
Ray Romano, all Jersey monotone, plays a mammoth named Manfred who refuses to migrate to sunnier climes with the other primitive mammals; he's a sulky beast possessing a tragic secret he keeps to himself. While other parents and kids are heading away from the snow and playing in the muck, Manfred sloshes toward a certain doom. Though the film never explicitly says so, it's as though Manny, as he comes to be known, is committing certain suicide -- the reasons for which are explained later, more or less, in a simple, moving scene played out with animated cave drawings.
Along the way, Manny picks up unwanted company: Sid, a gibber-jabbering sloth voiced by John Leguizamo like an outtake from one of his one-man shows; and Diego (Denis Leary), a sabertooth tiger seeking the baby's blood as revenge. Diego poses more of a threat than the encroaching snowstorm: He's doing the bidding of his boss, Soto (ER's Goran Visnjic), and his fellow sabertooths (including Jack Black and Diedrich Bater). Diego will either betray his newfound partners or discover, at the last moment, a conscience.
Unfortunately, the film's not entirely without the pop-culture references that rendered Shrek as disposable as its already-stale jokes. One scene, featuring crackpot dodo birds prophesying the approaching Ice Age and, hence, the end of the world, is as close to Simpsons territory as Ice Age gets. But it's welcome entirely because it invigorates the screen, which is too much filled with white sheets of ice and various shades of animal-pelt brown. Where Pixar's offerings dazzle without overdoing it, Ice Age goes in the opposite direction: Its look is almost boring. So too is much of its story. If only it didn't feel the need to keep us laughing, it might have kept on moving.